Travel by train is a great way to experience international overland travel in Southeast Asia. It’s more comfortable than a bus, and less hassle than international air travel. At the moment though there are only a few international train routes that are operating. This will change in the future with new international services planned, and some old routes restarting.
International train services in Southeast Asia
Here are the international railway trips that are possible, and services that may resume post-pandemic. These are services that are scheduled with no change of train. For example, you could go from Chiang Mai to Singapore by train if you changed trains four times, but this list is for scheduled trains that cross borders.
Blue: Current service.
Orange: Suspended/future services.
Grey: Former services.
Current international train services in Southeast Asia
Vientiane (Laos 🇱🇦) – Kunming (China 🇨🇳)
Vientiane – Kunming train services began on 13 April 2023. There is one service a day in each direction.
Train D888 departs Vientiane at 8:08 and arrives in Kunming South at 19:38 (1 hour ahead in China).
Train D887 departs Kunming South at 8:08 and arrives in Vientiane at 17:38 (1 hour behind China time).
I have a review of the Laos-China Railway but I only got as far as the border. I will ride and review the international service soon.
[International entrance at Boten Station.]
Bangkok (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Padang Besar (Malaysia 🇲🇾)
[Hualamphong Station in Bangkok.]
Bangkok to Padang Besar is the longest scheduled international train within Southeast Asia, covering a distance of 993.7 km in 18h 40m. There is one service per day in each direction, operated by State Railways of Thailand.
Depart Bangkok 15:10
Arrive Padang Besar 9:50
Depart Padang Besar 17:00
Arrive Bangkok 11:20
This train goes to Padang Besar on the Malaysian side of the border, so it is only just an international service. There is also a Padang Besar station on the Thai side of the border, where there is a domestic shuttle service that runs from Hat Yai to Padang Besar.
Check for tickets here.
Hat Yai (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Padang Besar (Malaysia 🇲🇾)
Technically there are four international trains, but the Hat Yai to Padang Besar shuttle follows the same route as the Bangkok to Padang Besar.
The border shuttle resumed in July 2022 with two services per day. The news reports said it goes to Padang Besar in Sadao district in Thailand. It’s been confirmed with a trip report by Richard Barrow of Thai Train Guide that it indeed crosses the border, making it an international connection.
Nong Khai (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Thanaleng (Laos 🇱🇦)
[Train to Thanaleng at Nong Khai.]
Nong Khai – Thanaleng is a scheduled cross-border shuttle service from Thailand to Laos. This service is timed with the Bangkok-Nong Khai sleeper services, so passengers from Bangkok can change trains at Nong Khai to continue to Laos.
The line is about 5km and it uses the First Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge to cross the Mekong (vehicle traffic is stopped when the train is crossing).
[Nong Khai to Thanaleng train crossing the First Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge.]
Immigration checks are made at each station, and it is more relaxed than going through immigration at the road crossing.
Buy Nong Khai – Thanaleng tickets at the station.
Check for Bangkok – Nong Khai tickets here.
Johor Bahru (Malaysia 🇲🇾) – Woodlands (Singapore 🇸🇬)
[Johor Bahru-Woodlands Shuttle at JB Sentral.]
The Johor Bahru – Woodlands Shuttle crosses the Johor–Singapore Causeway, and it is the shortest scheduled train service in Southeast Asia (maybe even the world). The train stations are at either end of the causeway (which is 1.056km) and the train trip takes 5 minutes.
This is a remnant of the old Singapore – KL railway, which no longer operates. To go from Singapore to KL by rail you need to catch this train, and then get on another train at Johor Bahru.
The main problem with this service is that it’s mostly used by commuters who live in JB and work in Singapore. As a result, the peak hour tickets are booked out weeks in advance. I turned up hoping to get a morning train to continue to KL, but the tickets were sold out.
On the plus side, if you are crossing into Singapore by land, this is the most civilised way to go, as crossing by bus can take over an hour in immigration during busy times (I’m speaking from experience here).
Book shuttle tickets here.
Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia 🇲🇾) – Hat Yai (Thailand 🇹🇭)
Malaysian railways (KTM Bhd) runs an occasional special overnight train service from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai (the “Sawadee Special” train). It is not known if this will become a regular service in the future.
Beijing (China 🇨🇳) – Vientiane (Laos 🇱🇦)
A special tour train taking 15 days on a roundtrip from Beijing to Vientiane.
Suspended international train services in Southeast Asia
This is a list of international services that have been suspended but are expected to restart. I will be updating this article when services resume. If you would like to keep updated I will make announcements in my newsletter (subscribe here).
Nanning (China 🇨🇳) – Hanoi (Vietnam 🇻🇳)
[Nam Ninh – Ha Noi train at Gia Lam Station in Hanoi.]
The Hanoi to Nanning (Nam Ninh in Vietnamese) departs from Gia Lam station in Hanoi at 21:40 and arrives at 10:10 the next morning. Return services depart at 18:05 and arrive at 6:05. This has been suspended since the closure of borders in 2020.
This used to be the Beijing–Nanning–Hanoi through train, but Beijing-Nanning is now high-speed, so it is faster to change at Nanning.
Hanoi (Vietnam 🇻🇳) – Beijing (China 🇨🇳)
Another Hanoi-Beijing service was launched on 1 January 2020 by Vietnam Railways. As you can see from the date, it was a short-lived service. There are no other details about this, such as if it was on one train or there was a change of train at Nanning. This could be suspended or cancelled, depending on what happens after China reopens. I will go on it to answer these questions!
Bangkok (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Woodlands (Singapore 🇸🇬)
There is no scheduled train between Bangkok and Singapore, but there was a tour train you could take. The Eastern & Oriental Express is a luxury train that was running tours between Bangkok and Singapore, with stops along the way. The service was suspended during the pandemic, though according to their website the tours will recommence in 2023.
My friend Johnny Jet did a story about the Eastern & Oriental Express (I make a guest appearance in this article at one of the stops).
[Eastern & Oriental Express (photo by Johnny Jet).]
Future international train services in Southeast Asia
This is a list of future international train services, such as lines that are under construction or waiting for countries to reopen (i.e China).
There are numerous proposed railways that might happen that are not listed here. I write about future railways at Future Southeast Asia, so if that interests you then subscribe to the Future Southeast Asia Newsletter for updates.
Nakhon Ratchasima (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Vientiane Khamsavath (Laos 🇱🇦)
[Nakhon Ratchasima Station.]
Vientiane Khamsavath Station is on the future extension of the Nong Khai – Thanaleng line. The problem with the current line is that Thanaleng is 15 km from Vientiane, so you have to get a minibus or taxi to get to Vientiane. The line is being extended to Khamsavath Station (Vientiane South), and it is expected to be open by the end of 2022.
With the line extended closer to Vientiane, the SRT plan to run services from Udon Thani and Nakhon Ratchasima stations to Vientiane in 2024. The same news report also says that there will be a Bangkok to Vientiane Khamsavath service in 2025. This is separate from the high-speed line that is under construction on the same route. For some reason, Thailand is building two separate lines on the same route, using two different gauges.
Bangkok (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Vientiane (Laos 🇱🇦)
[Bang Sue Grand Station – Bangkok’s future international station.]
Thailand is currently building a high-speed railway from Bangkok to the Thai-Laos border, which will join the Laos-China Railway (a semi-high-speed railway). At a minimum that will mean there will be a Bangkok to Vientiane service. From there it is possible that Thailand decide to offer longer services (such as Bangkok to Luang Prabang).
The high-speed train will depart from Bang Sue Grand Station, which is the new long-distance railway station of Bangkok.
Aranyaprathet (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Poipet (Cambodia 🇰🇭)
Thailand and Cambodia have been working towards reconnecting the two countries by rail, and it nearly happened before the pandemic. Thailand restored the railway from Aranyaprathet to the border on 22 April 2019, and Cambodia is preparing the border city of Poipet to be able to receive international trains. Poipet is connected to the Cambodian Northern Line which travels via Battambang to Phnom Penh.
Thailand was set to begin services between Bangkok and Ban Klong Luk Border Station in 2019. A meeting was held in February 2020 to work out the cross-border details, with the aim of starting train services in March 2020. You all know what happened next.
The question remains as to what kind of services will be offered once this service begins. Will it be a train from Bangkok to Poipet (like the Bangkok to Padang Besar service to Malaysia), or will there be a Bangkok to Phnom Penh service?
Cancelled international train services in Southeast Asia
This is a list of international train services in recent history that used to run but have since been cancelled. These do not have any prospect of restarting any time soon.
Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia 🇲🇾) – Tanjong Pagar (Singapore 🇸🇬)
[Tanjong Pagar railway station, the former main train station of Singapore.]
Singapore to Kuala Lumpur is the most logical city pair for an international railway in Southeast Asia, and it was a reality until 2011. The train used to start and end at two of the great railway stations of Southeast Asia (Tanjong Pagar in Singapore and the old Kuala Lumpur Station). The line in Singapore has now been converted into a walking path called The Green Corridor.
[The old railway line in Singapore is now a walking path.]
There is no longer a direct train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Travel by train now requires getting the metro to Woodlands, taking the shuttle train to Johor Bahru, and then getting the KTM train to Kuala Lumpur. There is a plan for a high-speed railway in the future, but that will be from two new stations outside the city centres.
Bangkok (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Butterworth (Malaysia 🇲🇾)
[Butterworth departure board showing Bangkok as a destination.]
Bangkok to Butterworth was a daily overnight train connecting Bangkok to Penang. This was the original International Express, which is now the Bangkok-Padang Besar service. The Butterworth train was discontinued in 2016 as there is now a fast electric train service in Malaysia that goes from Padang Besar to Kuala Lumpur.
Su-ngai Kolok (Thailand 🇹🇭) – Rantau Panjang (Malaysia 🇲🇾)
[Sungai Kolok Station.]
There is a second rail crossing on the Thailand-Malaysia border at Su-ngai Kolok–Rantau Panjang, which crossed the Harmony rail bridge. I’m still looking for information about this railway crossing, such as:
– Was it a border shuttle or did it have services from other cities (Hat Yai or Bangkok?)
– When was the last international rail service (passengers and freight)?
There is still a train from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok, but there is no prospect of the international crossing reopening.
Kunming (China 🇨🇳) – Hanoi (Vietnam 🇻🇳)
[Lao Cai – Hekou Railway bridge on the Vietnam side.]
The Kunming to Hanoi service operated on the Kunming-Haiphong metre-gauge railway built by the French at the start of the 20th century.
This article from 2000 describes taking the train from Kunming to Hanoi, which included a change of engine at the Hekou/Lao Cai border while the passengers continued in the same carriages.
I haven’t found the date that this service ended, but it looks like it ended sometime between 2000 and 2004 (if you know leave a comment).
This journey can still technically be done (when the borders are open) by getting the train from Kunming to Hekou, crossing the border by foot, then getting the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi. This blog has a guide for the Lao Cai-Hekou border crossing.
China has since built a standard gauge railway from Kunming to Heiku in anticipation of it one day being continued on an upgraded railway from Cao Lai to Haiphong. Don’t wait up for Vietnam to build a new railway.
Read more articles about train travel in Southeast Asia.